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Understanding children’s behavior and helping them heal

Young girl standing outside with backpack on

Kim Barthel is an occupational therapist, author, speaker, and consultant who says that her mission is to “support the conscious evolution of the human spirit.” Kim helps people understand why we behave the way they do—and to realize that we are all coming from a place of doing the best we can with what we have.

This article is based on Kim’s presentation at the 2020 North American Council on Adoptable Children conference. We thank Kim for granting us permission to share some of her insights about understanding children’s behaviors and helping them heal.

Brain basics

Parents often ask Kim why a child is exhibiting certain behaviors. Is it biological or environmental? Kim’s answer: It’s both! And it’s not the child’s fault. These are a few reasons why:

The lizard brain guides much of our behavior. Brain science tells us that 80 percent of human behavior is driven by the lower and mid-levels of the brain. Scientists call the large lower area of the brain the “lizard brain,” because it is all about instinctive reacting. The mid-level is similar in that it reacts with little thought processing.

Why is this important? Because when we think about children’s behavior, we often ask them why they did something. And the fact is that most of the time, they really don’t know!

Arousal and self-regulation drive behavior. Our ability to respond with the appropriate level of arousal—and manage our behavior—is developed during childhood. Scientists have observed that a baby’s ability to soothe itself begins in the womb.

Once we are born, we continually look to our caregivers for clues that the world is safe. When we are experiencing stress or fear or uncertainty, and someone shows us love and reassurance, it floods our system with oxytocin—a hormone that creates a sense of love and well-being. This co-regulation helps us to feel calm and connected.

It’s not until we are well into our mid 20s (and even 30 for men!) that we have the hardware in our brains to be able to regulate ourselves with our own thoughts. After this point, if we are neuro-typical, we are theoretically able to draw from our developmental experiences and self-regulate. (Co-regulation continues to support people throughout their lives, but before children grow into adults, and especially if they have a background of developmental trauma, it’s not realistic to expect that kids can self-regulate on their own.)

Why is this important? Because the more co-regulation we experience growing up, the better we are able to face stresses and trauma-inducing events and be resilient in later life. But as we know, many children in foster care have been deprived of these healthy experiences. They may also suffer from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and other conditions that can negatively impact their ability to regulate their emotions and respond in a healthy way to the world around them.

Understanding sensory triggers is key

Because so much of behavior is about arousal management, it is important to recognize common sensory processing challenges that children can be born with or develop.  Once you’ve identified these triggers, then you can work to adjust the child’s environment—and adapt your behaviors—to accommodate their needs.

  • Hypo-arousal. These kids are low energy, hard to get going, floppy in their bodies, and have difficulty engaging in everyday activities.
  • Hyper-arousal. This is the child who cannot sit still in class. But what looks like fidgeting or distraction can be a response to stress or to a perceived lack of salience, meaning that a child thinks that what they are doing isn’t important enough.
  • Sensitivity to touch. Touch is our biggest sensory receptor. Its job is to detect threats. For soldiers who have been through battle and are used to living on high alert, even air on their skin can create a guarding response in their body. Some of our children have been through similar prolonged stressors.
  • Sensitivity to space. These are kids who are terrified in the elevator, don’t do sports, or don’t want to play on the playground.
  • Sensitivity to sound. You can’t listen to language or tune into human voice. Your attention is hijacked by other sounds—like another person chewing.
  • Visual sensitivity. This can look like gaze aversion or blinking of the eyes.
  • Dissociation: When kids become stressed beyond their tolerance, the child may tune out and disconnect in order to protect themselves from overwhelming distress. Often this is interpreted as lack of attention, poor concentration, or disinterest. But it might just mean that a child is full of information or stimulation and cannot process anymore.

Tangible tips for helping children heal

It can be disheartening to think that early trauma can have such a long-lasting impact on child and generations to come. But the good news is that our nervous system is plastic and changeable. In the context of a secure and healthy relationship, the nervous system has the potential for change.

Here are a few tips for using your body and being present to calm a child:

  • Practice “gleaming and beaming.” This is the interaction that first happens between a mother and a baby and—ideally—continues throughout a child’s lifetime and into adulthood. When another person focuses a loving gaze and tone on you at any age, your body responds with an oxytocin hit that decreases the production of cortisol, the stress hormone.
  • Be in a state of attunement. We have a natural ability to respond to the feelings of others. Pay close attention to how a child responds to your behavior, and adjust it accordingly. For example, if a child’s caregiver was overly nice to them before hurting them, your kindness may be a trigger to that child.
  • Choose your words carefully! The brain, when it is stressed, can only process three words! In moments of stress, speak slowly and chunk your phrases.
  • Pay attention to your tone of voice. When we are under stress, our tone of voice elevates. But, interestingly, when you drop your own voice down, you not only calm the child down, you also calm yourself down!
  • Hold space. This means sharing someone’s distressing experience without you feeling the need to judge anything about it or to fix it. It is a very difficult thing to do, because it means tolerating another person’s suffering. But it is critical to give them that time and space, because it is how they will learn to self-regulate, and it is a key strategy for deepening relationships.
  • Consider color changes. Color can be too stimulating or not stimulating enough. For example, blue has a sedative impact, increasing serotonin and melatonin production. Red is powerful in creating distress—it actually changes your heartbeat.
  • Lastly, mouths are for more than talking and eating! The mouth taps into the vagus nerve, the longest nerve in our bodies that conduct communication from our brain to organs. Sucking, swallowing, or chewing can send a message to your body that it’s time to relax and calm down.

Learn more about Kim and her work on her website.